When / Why do People Choose to Contribute to Public Goods?

Are people mostly self-interested egoists who are unlikely to help achieve common goals unless somehow forced or induced to do so by government or other powerful agencies?  Although a lot of people (and the assumptions of traditional economics) suggest the answer is yes, there is reason to doubt this is so. Or, to be more precise, there is good reason to doubt it is true of all or even most people. For example, why does anyone voluntarily vote when there is essentially zero chance that doing so will promote the individual voter’s narrow self-interest? And why do people voluntarily recycle or work with others to help out a neighbor in need? At least some people seem to be motivated by a sense of social obligation or some motive(s) other than narrow egoistic self-interest.

And this, of course, has important implications for the kind of polity we can live in. After all, the more people there are who are willing to voluntarily incur personal costs to promote the public good, the less we need to rely upon government coercion for achieving mutually beneficial outcomes. (What’s worse, a government run by self-interested egoists would be highly unlikely to promote the public good either.)

My colleague, Dr. Toby Bolsen, and co-authors have shed light on this topic by conducting a clever field experiment in Cobb County, Georgia. Drawing from research that suggests people who frequently vote are motivated by a sense that doing so is a socially-valued obligation, they hypothesized that those who most frequently vote will be more likely to cut back on their water usage if, during a drought, they receive a letter requesting that they do so in order to conserve water for everyone. The experiment involved over 100,000 households and the results, reported in the American Journal of Political Science, strongly confirmed their hypothesis:

We find that registered voters who have no voting history and who received a letter requesting water conservation reduce their water consumption by 691 gallons on average over the summer. In contrast, the most frequently voting households who received a letter reduced their water consumption by an average of 2,507 gallons over this same period (a 6.2% overall reduction in water use over the summer of 2007).

By demonstrating that people who voluntary contribute to public goods in one area (voting) are more likely to do so in another (water conservation), their research suggests that certain individuals are generally more motivated by social norms than others.

This is a very interesting and important finding. You can read more about it here. Moreover, this naturally raises further questions. For example, why are some individuals more motivated by social norms than others? Is this something that can be learned? And if so, could it be promoted and developed through civic initiatives and/or appropriate public policies?

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